What surely has to be the most hotly anticipated extreme metal album in many a year is upon us. Having wowed critics and fans alike with 2014’s The Satanist, Behemoth ascended to the apogee of death metal and teetered on the edge of mainstream acceptance. After an extensive and exhaustive touring schedule that saw the nine song set performed in full on select legs, the Poles had the unenviable task of producing a successor. How do you follow up a record held in such high esteem?
In many ways, I Loved You At Your Darkest is similar to The Satanist. It still invokes the all encompassing darkness of that album, and the songs either sound like they could have been culled from that album (“Rom 5:8”, “Wolves of Siberia”, “Angelvs XIII” for example) or that they were once rooted in those writing sessions before growing into something more experimental. Experimental is a key word here, as this record sees Behemoth pushing their boundaries like never before. Whether they’re succesful or not really depends on how you look at the songs.
Whenever Behemoth go off the beaten path here, it always feels like a natural extension of what they had been doing previously. It’s an album that shows organic growth, and the group add many new strings to their bow, with every arrow they aim striking right at the heart of their target. Promo single “God = Dog” hinted at this whilst sticking close to The Satanist formula, but by the time “Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica” follows, you know we’re into unchartered territory. Behemoth have rarely been this straightforward, but the looser feel works well and allows the normally relentless rhythm section of Orion and Inferno to show a different side to their skills.
The thumping drum intro of “Bartzabel” signals an unholy rite is upon us, and the ominous picked pattern, Gregorian style chants and more reserved demeanour cast against Nergal’s vicious growls and fiery tremolo bursts make for a very effective number. It’s a great example of the experimental strength of the record, but also exposes its most glaring flaw. Behemoth are clearly all in on the direction they’re going, but sometimes the songs really don’t do justice to what they’re trying to achieve. The writing feels very tentative at times, and a lot of these songs could have been better developed. These days, many albums feel too long and over drawn, but I think this one could have done with an extra five or ten minutes to really allow the material to flourish. On far too many occasions I found myself really liking where a song was heading, only for it to wrap up too quickly. Many of these songs are begging to be expanded into epics (there’s nothing here to match the grandeur of “Lucifer” or “O Father O Satan O Son”), but instead they’re left to flounder somewhat. For example, “If Crucifixion Was Not Enough…” jumps from slow, D-beat style rhythms and clean picked motifs to a droning coda via a searing black metal bridge in the space of just over three minutes. Yeah, it works fine, but it could’ve been so much more. “Havohej Pantocrator” avoids this pitfall, as it’s actually given enough time to traverse its course and deliver on its potential, making it the most successful excursion on the record.
I think I Loved You at Your Darkest works as a cohesive piece, but as individual songs, it falls short. There are some tracks that can stand tall in solitude (most in the more traditional Behemoth style), but others seem slightly rushed and incomplete. The overall atmosphere is still wicked and blasphemous, but Behemoth have never been this easy on the ear before, lacking the skull crushing intensity of albums like Demigod and Evangelion or the hellish abrasion of The Satanist. In essence, it’s Behemoth lite, but that is no bad thing in my mind, as they successfully branch out whilst still retaining their character and spirit. It’s not as good as The Satanist, but matching that record was always a long shot. It’s still a pretty strong album in its own right, and with a little more work, I’ve no doubt they’ll produce something exceptional once again should they opt to continue in this direction.
Highlights: “God = Dog”, “Angelvs XIII”, “Havohej Pantocrator”
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